Funding Detroit: How Philanthropy Can Help Build Regional Capacity

9.28.11 | We wanted to highlight this great Q&A with Rip Rapson, the president of the Kresge Foundation about philanthropic work in Detroit that was posted last week at the Next American City.

It’s hard to find hopeful news about our economic future these days, but reading Rapson’s comments about the collaborative work going on to revitalize Detroit and the importance of this particular moment in time for the future of the city, which Rapson sees as a turning point, made me feel hopeful about local capacity for leadership and change.

The Kresge Foundation has provided important support in Detroit for many years and is a partner in Living Cities, a philanthropic collaborative that celebrates it’s 20th anniversary this week.

Last year Detroit was selected as part of Living Cities’ Integration Initiative for their efforts in “harnessing existing momentum and leadership for change, overhauling long obsolete systems and fundamentally reshaping communities and policies to meet the needs of low-income residents.”

The Integration Initiative focuses on transforming systems and working in neighborhoods and beyond to help build a resilient civic infrastructure in places like Detroit. The support for Detroit comes in the form of grants, and both flexible and commercial debt totaling over $20 million dollars to improve safety, schools, employment, infrastructure and small business development.

Rapson says finding and supporting key nonprofit intermediaries in the Detroit area has been important in making sure redevelopment efforts there are successful and sustained.

He lists several such intermediaries that have played important roles in Detroit in spurring job growth and neighborhood development – from the nonprofit Midtown Detroit, Inc. to The New Economy Initiative for Southeast Michigan, a development cluster designed to promote entrepreneurship and help small businesses. He also points to the leadership role the area’s two medical centers – the Henry Ford Medical Center and Detroit Medical Center have played in anchoring new growth in the area, providing jobs and encouraging employees to live where they work.

Philanthropic support is helping to ensure these organizations can do their work without worrying about where the next dollars is coming from. According to Rapson they’ve provided important leadership and follow through on issues from residential development to transit-oriented development to economic development.

“The Integration Initiative has tried to pursue both the broad imperative of improving the lives of low-income people in Detroit and the more targeted aim of tying together residential investment, human services, and job training with transportation improvements and economic development,” Rapson said in the interview.  “For that kind of work to be effective, you need strong, vibrant, visionary intermediaries.”

BRR Network members Margaret Weir and Sarah Reckhow make a similar point in the paper they published earlier this year about the role of philanthropic institutions in building regional capacity.

Their paper, which focuses on philanthropy’s role in building a stronger suburban safety net for low-income suburban families,  finds that philanthropy can help connect organizations and begin to build capacity, by providing nonprofit organizations with funds to innovate and address new issues.

“But foundations sometimes also play a larger role in helping to knit together an entire region and to identify gaps in services,” Reckhow said in a recent Q&A on this blog. “For example, foundations may use their broad connections with local groups to bring organizations together and encourage collaboration on new initiatives.”

Rapson agrees. The reason Detroit has been successful, he says, is because they have multiple sectors agreeing to collaborate for a common outcome.

What we’re experiencing here that’s different from, say Pittsburgh or Portland, where the leadership was largely coming out of the private sector, is a different allocation of roles among the sectors. The public sector is attending to the basics – finance, administration, neighborhood blight.  The private sector is contributing to the physical infrastructure necessary to make the City an attractive place for its employees to live and work. The federal government is focused on optimizing pre-existing investments – introducing flexibility in ways that permits the City to use federal dollars more flexibly and creatively. And the philanthropic sector has developed a wrap-around vision for the city – everything from transportation reform to a more robust arts and culture ecosystem, from a green economy to an anchor institution community engagement strategy. No one of those sectors could do it alone. I think we’ll be able to conclude in retrospect that this remarkable cross-sector and cross-discipline approach was the key to overcoming Detroit’s most intractable problems.

Let’s hope he’s right and that other cities will follow suit.  Read the full interview at the Next American City. Their live blog of Living Cities’ anniversary conference yesterday is also worth checking out.

Photo by Michael Velardo.

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